Just Like That | Legacy of the rebellious women saints of the Bhakti movement - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | The legacy of the rebellious women saints of the Bhakti movement

Dec 11, 2023 10:48 AM IST

From Lal Ded in Kashmir to Andal in Tamil Nadu, female devotees challenged gender orthodoxies through poetry and devotion

These days there is much greater recognition of the role of women's power in the winning of elections. Women, who account for half the population, are increasingly making political decisions independently, and their support for a political party or leader can make a big difference. This is in accord with the importance given to Shakti, the female energy, in our philosophy, and the pervasive worship of Devi (goddess) in all her forms. It is another thing that even today, women are still the victims of a male-dominated society, but change is certainly afoot.

Mira Bai was born in 1498 CE, the daughter of a nobleman of the house of Mewar.(Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Mira Bai was born in 1498 CE, the daughter of a nobleman of the house of Mewar.(Wikimedia Commons)

These days there is much greater recognition of the role of women's power in the winning of elections. Women, who account for half the population, are increasingly making political decisions independently, and their support for a political party or leader can make a big difference. This is in accord with the importance given to Shakti, the female energy, in our philosophy, and the pervasive worship of Devi (goddess) in all her forms. It is another thing that even today, women are still the victims of a male-dominated society, but change is certainly afoot.

Speaking of the power of women, I am reminded of the trail-blazing role of women in the powerful Bhakti movement, that swept across India between the 9th and the 17th centuries. These remarkable women refused to be straitjacketed in the conventional stereotype of submission, subordination and inferiority.

Andal, regarded as one of the twelve Alvar saint-poets, lived in the 9th century CE in Tamil Nadu. She left behind two works. In the Tirupaavai, a poem of 30 verses, she evokes Krishna by comparing him to the rainfall that produces fertility. Nachiyar Tirumoli, her second and longer work of 143 verses, is much more explicitly sensuous. In a dream, she sees herself married to Vishnu, but Krishna remains elusive. Her burning desire for physical contact with him is unconstrained by the dictums of conventional society:

He entered inside me and crushed me to pieces

I have lost the beauty of my breasts and my red lips

Since Hrishikesha violated me.

In the sole desire to be united with him, my breasts grew large

And jumped for joy.

Now they make my life melt away and cause such agony.

Mira Bai was born in 1498 CE, the daughter of a nobleman of the house of Mewar. In 1516, she was married to Prince Bhoja Raj, heir to the throne of Mewar. The marriage was childless and her husband died very soon. Like Andal, Mira too looked upon Krishna as her husband. Her songs, collectively known as Padavali, are deeply intense, in which nothing seems to exist except Krishna, the object of her desire, and to whom she is wed in a dream. Defying a conservative society, she uninhibitedly sang of her love for him:

I donned anklets and danced

The people said ‘Mira is mad’.

My mother-in-law declared

That I had ruined the family’s reputation.

The king sent me a cup of poison

Which I drank with a smile

I have offered body and mind

To the feet of Hari

And will drink the nectar of his holy sight

Mira’s Lord is the courtly Giridhar

And Lord to thee I will go for refuge.

Among the Nayanar saints (circa 6th to 9th century CE) in the South, was Karaikkal Ammaiyar. She boldly left her husband, and settled in a cremation ground in the town of Alankatu, rejoicing in Shiva’s dance among the dead:

She has shrivelled breasts

And bulging veins

With ruddy hair on her belly

The demon woman wails at the desolate cremation ground

Where our Lord

Whose hanging matted hair

Blows in eight directions

Dances among the flames

Another remarkable poet was Mahadevi, known also as Akka, or elder sister. She lived at the time of the Lingayat saint Basavanna (1105-67 CE). For her, Shiva was her beloved husband, and she had no time for other suitors. Soon she left her home and became a wandering mendicant, discarding even her garments, covered only by her tresses. In this state, she had a remarkable dialogue with Basavanna. When asked who her husband was, she simply said ‘Chennamallikarjuna’, meaning the ‘Lord white as Jasmine’—the name of Shiva in the temple where as a child she fell in love with him. When queried why she was in the nude, her deeply evocative reply was:

Till the fruit is ripe inside

The skin will not fall off.

I’d a feeling it would displease you

If I displayed the body’s seals of love.

O brother, don’t tease me needlessly.

I’m given entire into the hands of my Lord

White as Jasmine.

In Kashmir, Lalleshwar also known as (1320-1392), also known as Lal Ded, was a Shiva bhakt (devotee), whose mysticism, expressed in Sanskrit poems called Vakhs, had a deep impact on the psyche of Kashmiris. On the whole, the women icons of the Bhakti movement posed a challenge to gender orthodoxies and traditional notions of male superiority sanctioned by texts like the Manusmriti.

The intense passion and unconventional confidence of these uninhibited female devotees led also to a point of view that bhakti could be pursued best only if the devotees imagined themselves to be women. Chaitanya (1486-1534), the great Bengali mystic, was considered by many to be an incarnation of Radha. The Gujarati saint, Narsinh Mehta, born a century before Mira Bai, wrote openly that in his devotion he used to dance and sing like the gopis of Vrindavan.

In the South, the eminent Vaishnava exponent, Vedanta Desika, used to wear the clothes of a woman while worshipping Krishna. Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886), the towering Bengali saint, used to wear women’s clothes in his worship of Krishna. Hita Harivansh (1503-1553), the founder of the Radha-Vallabhi sect, has written that Radha was a veritable ocean of nectar, whereas Krishna was but a drop.

Much of this is not known to the women exercising their voting rights today. But history tells us that Indian women had always the strength to chart a different path for themselves, irrespective of the institutionalised dominance of men.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

There are three verses quoted in translation in the column. Their translators and other details are given seriatim below:

1. Friedhelm Hardy in 'Viraha Bhakti: The Early History of Krishna Devotion in South India'.

2. A.J. Alston in 'The Devotional Poems of Mirabai'.

3. A.K. Ramanujam in 'Speaking of Shiva'.

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